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Tibetan Autonomy: A Compromise Three-state Solution

posted Mar 31, 2011, 5:55 PM by The Tibetan Political Review
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Originally published in the East Asia Forum

By Huw Slater, ANU
Since the dramatic ructions in Tibet in 2008, the region has attracted increasing attention as observers try to grasp the reasons for ongoing tensions. Sourabh Gupta’s contribution, posted here [1], follows similar analysis by Ben Hillman, here [2] and here [3]. Both commentators make important points about the need for compromise on both sides, and in particular point to the need for the Dalai Lama to ‘match rhetoric with action’ in his advocacy on behalf of the Tibetan people.
But ultimately, the current gap between the negotiating positions of Tibetan exiles and the Chinese government boils down to a disputed interpretation of the correct boundaries of Tibet.
Gupta makes the observation that, ‘even during Tibet’s existence as a de facto independent state through much of the first half of the 20th century, its rough-and-ready frontiers bore no resemblance to the Greater Tibet chimera’. But this ignores the fact that Tibetan claims for autonomy across the Tibetan plateau do not refer to historic claims of an ‘independent’ Tibet.  Further, as Gupta acknowledges, the Dalai Lama has renounced any claim to Tibetan independence.
The 1959 protests, which fomented the ill-fated uprising and the Dalai Lama’s subsequent escape, began in eastern Tibet, outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). The 2008 protests were similar, with the vast proportion of activity occurring in areas outside of the TAR. Additionally, the Tibetan exile community is composed of Tibetans from across the plateau, not merely the TAR. In this respect, Hillman and Gupta’s suggestion that the Dalai Lama’s unwillingness to abandon the claims of eastern Tibetans represents political weakness is incorrect. In fact, the Dalai Lama’s position is the only stance that could be possible in the circumstances.
It seems likely that the Chinese government is nervous that establishing a new autonomous entity covering all Tibetan areas, as proposed by the Dalai Lama, may be the first step toward a push for independence for the region. This probably explains their constant suggestions that the Dalai Lama is less than genuine in his renouncement of independence. While outsiders may view this concern as overly paranoid, Tibetans must seek to demonstrate that this is in fact not the case.
For his part, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly stated that he envisions ‘genuine autonomy’ for all Tibetans. This concept is rooted in the Chinese constitution itself, which states that when minority nationalities live in compact communities, ‘organs of self- government are (to be) established for the exercise of the right of autonomy’. Taking the Chinese constitution as a starting point, we need to re-conceive how Tibet is governed in China. The current border of the TAR is an artificial one. If the goals of stability and genuine autonomy are to be realised, this border must be reviewed.

What then, should be the content of a greater Tibet?
A three-state structure of Tibetan autonomy could satisfy the demands of Tibetan exiles, whilst allowing the Chinese State to prevent the possible breakaway of Tibet as a separate nation.
The province of Qinghai roughly corresponds to the traditional Tibetan region of Amdo, and remains predominantly Tibetan.  Tibetans constitute about 55 percent of the population outside of Xining (the provincial capital), and represent 90 percent of some Qinghai prefectures. This is despite massive population movement during the past half century. The remainder of the Tibetan plateau is referred to as Kham by Tibetans, and also remains predominantly Tibetan. Until 1955, this region was officially the province of Xikang, only to be divided between the TAR and Sichuan.
Genuine autonomy for all Tibetans necessarily requires that Tibetans from Amdo and Kham enjoy a similar level of autonomy to central Tibetans. But given that the exiles’ conception of a ‘Greater Tibet’ is so worrying to Beijing, why not separate the Tibetan regions, the TAR (central Tibet), Qinghai (Amdo) and Sikang (Kham) into three separate autonomous regions. This would incorporate the principle claims of the Dalai Lama, namely: respect for Tibetan language, culture and religion, access to adequate education and health services, protection of the environment, more say over the use of natural resources, economic development and trade, regulation of the military presence in Tibet and the rate of migration into Tibetan areas.